In S. Africa, no sanitary pads mean no school

GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa, April 12 -- It wasn't something Noloyiso Zani ever worried about when she was younger. But now, at age 15, Zani prefers to skip school than risk embarrassment during her monthly menstrual cycle.

"I don't want to be teased because there is a stain on my chair," she said. "I've seen it happen to others."

Zani is one of several girls at Mary Waters High School in Joza, a small town in South Africa's Eastern Cape region, who admitted to missing up to one week of school each month during their menstrual cycles. The girls said they can't afford sanitary towels.

Some girls try to make do with what they have.

“Cloths, toilet paper and newspapers are common substitutes for sanitary towels,” said Nandi Nokhela, 14.

Those options aren't ideal. Newspapers can cause discomfort and rashes, and they don't absorb liquid well, said gynecologist Pat Tigere.

Faith Coetzee, a life orientation teacher at Mary Waters, said she's kept a stock of sanitary towels in her office since last year. She said she encourages other teachers to contribute money to the cause. Coetzee said the cost of the towels come from her own pocket.

The cheapest pads at a local store are about $2 for a pack of 10.

“We see the same girls coming to ask for pads, we know that there are many more who are too shy or embarrassed to come forward," Coetzee said. "They are girls and they have their pride."

Students noted that condoms are free and easily available in school bathrooms and clinics. Sanitary pads, for those who cannot afford them, should be just as easy to obtain, students said.

Coetzee hopes an amended orientation program for grade eight girls will put students at ease, making them comfortable to talk about issues of hygiene and ask for help. The teachers are aware that being a co-ed school, it is difficult to deal with issues that are specifically related to girls or boys respectively.

Since the beginning of this year, several gender segregated life orientation classes each term will be offered.

But if more girls at the 1,200-pupil school begin to ask for pads, Coetzee's stock won't last.

“Donations, although immensely helpful and appreciated, are not a sustainable option," she said.

Not only does the school need sanitary towels but they are also in desperate need of sanitary bins to dispose of the towels. According to Coetzee, many girls throw their pads away in rubbish bins, leaving it up to the school's single cleaner to dispose of them.

The school looks to the federal Department of Education and the Department of Health to help supply sanitary bins and towels.

Coetzee said she's been in contact with other education department officials, and is awaiting the arrival of sanitary towel bins. Her school is on a waiting list to receive them, she said.

Amos Fetsha, the education department's district director, declined to comment.

Members of the African National Congress Youth League's Rhodes University branch said the league in 2009 took on the distribution of free sanitary towels as a project. Since then, the league has pushed for broader acknowledgement of the need for free sanitary towels throughout the country.

In February, South African President Jacob Zuma announced that free sanitary towels should be provided, but it's not clear how and when that will happen.